My last trip to Kyoto was planned for July 13-14th, 2013. I originally planned to take the shinkansen down to Kyoto, but my old coworker J (also a Canadian) was driving down as far as Kobe with his friend and offered me a lift. I gladly accepted, since this would save me at least 5,000 yen. Thus began a real adventure!
All of us were working Saturday, so we met up just after 7:30 pm at the train station and took off for the Kansai area! ...or so we thought. Turns out J's GPS had us going north instead of south, and we had to turn around and drive back through most of Tokyo. I can't remember what time it was when we finally left Tokyo, but I do remember us going through Kikugawa-shi in the dark. That's a city in Shizuoka.
I'd been super jazzed about this road trip, and had prepared a bunch of travel tunes organized by decade. J and I used to sing old songs and watch video clips at work all the time. A lot of my best memories of him involve singing along to something. In the car we had the 80s tunes blasting, and J belted out his special rendition of A-ha's Take on Me. Nobody can hit the high note like he can! We also gossiped like old ladies about work. No one understands the plight of an English teacher quite like another one!
The rest is after the break.
We made one quick pit stop for gas and food about halfway through the drive. J has a 2 door car with a tiny back seat, or ledge as I like to call it, and J and I were crushed against the dash so his friend could sit behind us. It was painful unfolding ourselves each time we got out. I'm sure his friend was so relieved to get out and stretch his legs! We just grabbed some junk food and hot pocket style things we could heat in the microwave, because we wanted to get to Kobe as soon as possible.
I have no memories of anything interesting besides the truck stop area we hit on the way down. The Tomei Expressway goes by a lot of small towns, but they all look the same. I originally tried to memorize the names of the places we passed, but gave up. None of them really stood out.
By the time we made it down to Kobe it was around 2 or 3 in the morning. We ended up at the Kobe Kua House, which has a lot of cheap plans for accommodations and using the onsen (hot springs). They are totally cool with foreigners, by the way. Something you don't find in every ryokan. It's also just a 15 minute walk from the shinkansen station. I think the plan was about 3,100 yen for the smallest room. Unfortunately, all the women's rooms were booked up, so I had nowhere to sleep. I was told I could just pay a small fee for using the onsen (about 950 yen I think) and sleep somewhere on the women's floor. I made my way to the women's side and found it mostly empty.
The facilities at Kua are really nice. They have large lockers with keys to store your personal belongings in, a lounge with TVs, bright mirrors and hair dryers, and lots of fully stocked washing stations. Kua also has really nice baths, which are of course the most important part. I tried all of the ones they had, and found them to be relaxing, but not as interesting as other hot springs I've been to. All of the pools are tiled, and fairly comfortable to sit in. It was also really clean in there, which I appreciated.
I originally intended to sleep on one of the short sofas in the lounge area when I arrived, but it was so bright, and there were women using hair dryers or watching TV, so I just couldn't drift off. I ended up trying out the massage chair near the lockers to relax, which was the worst mistake I could have made. I'd never used one of the chairs before and had no idea how strongly they pummel you. I have pinched nerves in my back and I felt like someone was trying to paralyze me. The worst part was that the chair tilted back while it beat you, and I couldn't get up. I must have looked like a turtle on its back while I was trying to escape the chair of pain!
Totally sleep deprived and tenderized, I skirted my way around the staff on the floor to enter the baths. I have to be careful, because I have two tattoos, and most onsen flat out refuse to admit you if you have them. I haven't been busted yet, but I've had two friends tell me stories of getting refused at the door or even kicked out of the onsen after they'd stripped down because they had tattoos. People ask me about this all the time, and the best answer I've been able to find is that in the minds of the older generation, tattoos = criminals. I think Yakuza gave the tattoos a bad image to start with, and that's what they're still associated with. A lot of younger people don't feel this way, but none of them are running onsen yet!
I'm sure most of you know how the onsen works, but for those who don't I'll explain the steps;
1) When you go into the pool/shower area, you should be naked. You can wrap a towel around yourself up to a point, but you have to lose it before you go in. Your towel would just get soaked, anyway. Usually they have some kind of shelves or baskets outside the shower area for you to leave your towel. This took me the longest time to get used to. I'd never done public nudity for more than a brief strip down in a locker room before, so walking around naked in front of strangers for hours freaked me out. It doesn't help when you're foreign and everyone STARES at you. They stop eventually. Promise.
2) Go on in, try not to stare at all the naked oba-sans, and find a spot to sit down in front of one of the shower heads. You get a little plastic seat to sit on. DO NOT stand up to shower. It's bad etiquette, because you might splash your neighbours. Wet yourself down, and give yourself a good wash with the soap and shampoo they provide. You can use your own if you want, but usually onsens provide pretty good stuff for you to use. You can hose off with the shower head, or fill up the plastic basins they have and dump it over your head. Once you're done, hose off the stool you sat on, empty any water out of the basin, and try to put everything back the way you found it.
3) Time for the hot springs! I suggest easing yourself into the pools slowly. Some of them are extremely hot, and you could end up crying if you jump in. I've only discovered one pool that I couldn't dip more than a toe in during all my time in Japan. That was up at Kinsenkaku in Fukushima (my favourite hot spring!). Most of them feel super good to me, but I like my showers burning hot, too. Also, if you aren't used to soaking in super hot water, don't stay in too long the first time. Try sitting on the edge of the pool to cool down, and then get back in. You don't want to fall asleep in the pool, and you don't want your body to become so weak that you can't get back out. It hasn't happened to me, but I've been warned about it by several people.
4) Once you're done, pick up your towel and go to the lounge area. They have all sorts of things you can use like Q-tips, cotton pads, combs, brushes, hair dryers, face creams, etc. Most onsen tend to sell products made from their waters or local minerals. You can usually sample these in the shower area and in the lounge area. I love trying all the different products, and usually come home with a few. It's so nice that they provide all these things, because if you're only visiting for the day to use the onsen you don't want to carry all your own stuff around with you. At Kua I tried a special soap called 美肌石鹸 (beautiful skin soap) that was quite good. They had a nice hand cream by the same brand. It's made from the local waters, which are rather famous. I didn't really find them that special. I'll put up another post soon about my favourite hot springs. I've been to some really cool ones!
As for mixed baths, something I also get asked about, Kua doesn't have them. The men are on a totally different floor from the women, so you're safe enough. I've only been to one mixed bath, but I'll save that story for another post.
After sitting in the chair of pain, going through all the pools twice, watching TV, and drying my hair, I had killed about 4 hours. I knew the shinkansen were starting around 7, so I decided to pack up my belongings,head out for some breakfast, and walk to the station. I figured at this point it was useless to try and get any sleep, because I wanted an early start to hit all the spots in Kyoto I had planned.
Trudging like a zombie, I grabbed a breakfast sandwich from a convenience store, because there were no restaurants open in the area, used Navitime (the best app you will ever use in Japan), and found my way up to the train station. From Shin-Kobe to Kyoto took me 28 minutes and a grand total of 2,810 yen to get there. A bargain compared to what I'd have paid if I journeyed from Tokyo!
Part 2 of my Kyoto trip coming up next!